A new high-performance track at Zurich Letzigrund stadium could see the arena return to its record-breaking glory days during two key athletics meetings this summer. But the athletes had better make sure they have the right spikes.
The Letzigrund has long had a “magic” reputation, having enjoyed 25 world records, including in sprints, over several decades. But its last one, albeit in the women’s pole vault, dates back five years.
But with the arena hosting the European Athletics Championships from August 12-17 and 11 days later, the Weltklasse Diamond League meeting – featuring a certain Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man - it was decided to give the track an early CHF800,000 ($886,000) facelift, in the form of a retopping.
“We are going to be the only stadium this year to have that kind of surface and we hope that is going to be a competitive advantage,” Patrick Magyar, CEO of both the European Championships and the Weltklasse, told swissinfo.ch.
He believes the surface will improve athletes’ performance and help protect them from injury.
The retopping was designed by sports surface specialist CONICA. Tucked away in an industrial estate on the outskirts of the northern Swiss city of Schaffhausen, CONICA took several years to develop the new Zurich track, and the firm worked closely with sports scientists and athletes, CEO Ulrich Daum says.
Donning a hard hat – Daum’s is personalised – and protective arm coverings over our T-shirts, he shows off the chemical plant where the track components are produced.
Huge vats of chemicals are being churned. Some will be used for other indoor sports surfaces, others for industrial flooring. The workers greet their boss cheerily as they monitor the vats’ progress, or move vats around by forklift.
The high-performance surface at the Letzigrund is the big project of the moment.
But the retopping work at the stadium, which ended in July, was not without a few nervous moments, Daum explained. Downpours deluged Switzerland in July, with fears the track wouldn’t have the rain-free 24 hours needed to be laid and set. A dry weather patch meant the “disaster” was averted.
The bright red track’s main component is polyurethane, which is also used, for example, in the automotive industry in car seat foam.
CONICA must adhere to general rules about the technical features of the track, explained Hans-Jochen Erb, CONICA’s head of global marketing communications.
Plus the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) must certify track systems to hold international events. But there are no specific rules on the materials to be used, for example, he said.
The retopping’s first layer is designed to be soft and cushioning to give back the runner part of the energy they have exerted. The second layer is harder, allowing the athlete to better propel him or herself forwards and to have better stability.
Faster, more stable
CONICA worked with the Institute of Biomechanics and Orthopedics of the German Sport University Cologne to run tests. “Measurements showed that we have something like 10% less energy loss from the athlete, and that should give a basis for good physics on the ground, to have good work between the surface track, the shoe and the athlete,” Daum said.
But it was also shown that sprinters first needed to get used to running on the harder track. Men apply more weight and force to the track than women, giving them an advantage. The solution: shoes with sharper spikes for a stronger surface impact. This particularly applies to lighter women, scientists found, but could also help men as well.
Female athletes speaking to Swiss television during tests at the Letzigrund training track said they still had to get used to the hardness of the new surface. But measurements there showed a further advantage: not only were the athletes running faster, their key ankle and knee joints were more stable, reducing the risk of injury during sprints.
World record pole vault holder Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie has also tested the track. He told swissinfo.ch at a European Championships media conference in May that it looked “strong and not so soft, so I think it’s a good surface to be able to jump high”. Of course, only after competing will he know for sure.
So could there be records at the European Championships, and what about Bolt at the Weltklasse?
“Everybody is talking about that, but it’s the athlete that has to run and not the track,” Daum said, with a smile. “It would be nice. From the pure physics which we supply the athletes, it should be possible but more than 60-70% is the athlete.”
And Magyar’s hopes? He will be bowing out this season as meeting director of the Weltklasse, “So of course I hope to end with panache,” he said.
Two big athletics events
European Athletics Championships, August 12-17: 14,000 athletes from 50 countries, 47 sets of medals to be awarded, 25,000 spectators expected per day, around 370 million television viewers.
Weltklasse Zurich, August 28: top athletics stars include Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (Jamaica), David Rudisha (Kenya), and Usain Bolt (Jamaica), around 20,000 spectators, 15 million television viewers.